Married successfully resists giving audiences what they want. That’s a simplification—by “audiences,” I mean “lucrative, complacent masses of viewers”—but the whole formula of this series is a the weekly impersonation of a sitcom. Married is a minutely observed, wry drama in sitcom clothes.
Tonight, the show introduces itself with the comforting promise of another standard sitcom setup—Russ’ difficult mother is coming to town for the weekend. And it’s true that, in the course of the episode, all the expected beats are hit—Russ’ mother Sharon (Joanna Cassidy) is impossible to please, talks down to daughter-in-law Lina, is inappropriate around her granddaughters (and her son), and generally acts as the single episode disruptive whirlwind of poor parenting most sitcoms trot out at one point or another. What “The Cruise” does—and what Married does—is ground Sharon’s actions in resolutely human terms that refuse to yield to easy laughs or to the genre necessity of closure at the end of a half-hour. Even on sitcoms that acknowledge the pain of having a shitty parent, an episode will include a feint toward reconciliation or at least connection. Married sticks to its guns here, as usual, making a case that family life is a continuum, and that people don’t really change. Certainly not in a half hour, and most likely not at all.
Cassidy’s Sharon comes from the “horny, irresponsible mother” character file, but the episode (written by Daisy Gardner) makes Russ’ mother more than “Russ’ mother.” Sharon’s awful, but she sweeps into the episode (immediately criticizing the Bowmans’ house, dusting the joint without pants on, and dropping the news that the cruise she’s going on is being paid for by an “interested senior” she met online) with the real sense of having come from a life outside of the show. When she abruptly sweeps out the same way—only offhandedly saying goodbye to her son because Lina intercepted her on the way to a waiting taxi—it’s with the agency of a woman with a life waiting for her as well. Cassidy’s a wonderful actress, and Sharon, while sharing some of the “terrible, self-involved mother” DNA with her memorable Six Feet Under character, is horribly precise, her effect on her grown son so specifically painful and upsetting, especially the way Nat Faxon registers it.
He’s introduced with signature Russ rakishness, interrupting Lina’s meditation tape in their newly vacated guest house for some “we have to do it quickly because your parents are coming home” light roleplaying. The way that he immediately recoils as soon as Lina teases that it’s his mother who’s on her way is the first hint of the effect his mother’s presence has on him. At first, it seems like he’s just annoyed that Lina isn’t playing the game right (Lina, happily returning to her meditation/nap, knows exactly what she’s doing), but Faxon gradually reveals how Sharon’s arrival has shaken him loose completely. Faxon’s great tonight, his every line and reaction fairly vibrating with contradictory emotions. (The scene where he passive-aggressively offers his mother the guest house is a little masterpiece of hooded hostility.) Luckily, he’s got Lina.
The Bowmans’ marriage is, as one would expect, central to Married, Faxon and Judy Greer always finding subtle means to make us understand why these two very unhappy people are, in fact, good for each other. While there’s some incipient (if sad) wackiness in Lina’s preparations for Sharon’s arrival—Lina has the girls hide anything that looks expensive, and most of the wine, in Lina’s closet—there’s also a very lived-in sweetness in Lina’s battle-readiness. While the show, characteristically, doesn’t engage in much exposition, Greer and Faxon’s performances fill in just how trying the weekend is going to be for Russ—and how ready Lina is to throw herself in front of him when necessary. (She ends up taking Sharon shopping—for expensive cheeses and a revealing teddy—before the first morning of her visit is through.)
Lina and Russ aren’t especially happy people, or even happy with each other—but that’s more a function of their individual dissatisfaction. When the shit goes down—in this case, in the form of a mother who turns Russ into a jittery, frightened, shame-faced wreck—their bond kicks in. It’s all the more touching for how understated it is—neither Russ nor Lina is prone to (or able to) let go of their own guarded unhappiness enough to be terribly effusive. That’s not who they are (or what Married is). So when Russ, asking Lina to tell him he’s a good boy after Sharon’s departure, receives Lina’s teasing, “You’re all right” in return, the fact of her reaching out to lightly stroke his back as they go back in the house says a lot. Nothing is resolved, a big hug and heartfelt praise won’t change that—but Lina’s there, and they’re still married.
- Sharon’s the worst, but there’s something grudgingly admirable about her unwillingness to play nice. When Lina responds to Sharon’s question about whether the “interested senior” is going to get his money’s worth on their cruise with her usual humorous skepticism, Cassidy’s delivery of “The answer is yes, bitch” doesn’t give an inch.
- Less endearing is her referring to “my asshole son and his joyless wife.”
- Lina, honestly responding to Russ’ question about how long their marriage will last if Sharon moves in: “Three months. Maybe six with counseling.”
- After Sharon calls him a Republican for demanding she wear pants around the house, Russ asks, exasperated, “Pants are Republican?” (Lina: “I think pants are bi-partisan.”)
- Again, one of the fringe benefits of Jenny Slate’s withdrawal from Married is the emergence of the A.J-Bernie comedy team, especially with the addition of Paul Reiser’s Shep into the mix tonight. (There’s no mention of where Slate’s Jess is, which doesn’t bode well for Shep’s marriage.) Brett Gelman continues to make A.J.’s manic misery a source of unpredictable—and unnerving—comedy. Tonight, his desire to “save” webcam girl Gloria (Misty Monroe) is his latest substitute for the drugs, booze, and indiscriminate promiscuity with which A.J. used to try to beat back his depression. Thwarted when Gloria doesn’t follow through on her plans to go to school to teach deaf kids, A.J. is crushed and angry (“I even gave her a stipend!”). Enter John Hodgman’s Bernie who, with signature impish perversity, takes up the cause as well, at least partly for his own amusement. (“At first I pretended to be a regular pervert,” he confides to A.J. of his plan to confront Gloria online.) With Reiser dragooned into their scheme against his will, things wrap up with the poor woman being confronted with not only three meddling, middle-aged stalkers, but an adorable deaf boy (A.J.’s former drug dealer’s lookout) who finally manages to reach her. A.J.’s ongoing, desperate quest to find something to fill the seemingly bottomless well of self-loathing driving him seems headed for something very dark (as his episode-concluding engagement of a pair of prostitutes he also wants to “save” suggests).
- Married continues to have its (white, middle class) characters’ pull less well-off people of color into their various schemes. Tonight, Gloria’s function as A.J.’s project is another example of the main characters operating from a position of white privilege that the characters may not acknowledge, but that Married does. Monroe is another in the line of supporting actors who refuse to settle comfortably into the role of props in the main characters’ stories. (Even if Gloria’s final moment with the deaf boy is a little sticky.)
- Also disappointing (and troublesome for A.J.’s prospects) is the absence of Sarah Burns’ Abby, who looks like A.J.’s obvious choice for a suitably odd romantic partner.
- After no one rises to the bait and asks A.J. about the good deed he’s keen to tell them about, Bernie responds, “Pretty sure we’re going to get that information either way.”
- “We’re trying to save a life.” “And help the deaf—so it’s a two-fer.”
- Shep’s resigned forbearance in putting up with his wife’s friends continues to be the perfect outlet for Reiser’s delivery. Responding to Gloria asking what he wants: “Well, I feel like being alone, but that ship has sailed.”
- Bernie, to the exasperated Shep: “Okay, so is this the credit card you wanna use, or do you have a second one you use just for porn?”
- Shep, to Gloria: “I know these guys are annoying but… that’s all I got.”